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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | Scores of people crowded the Southbridge Towers Community Room on June 21 expecting to hear from Frank J. Sciame, chairman of the Seaport Museum New York, and from Mary Ellen Pelzer, president of the museum, but the guests of honor didn’t show up for Community Board 1’s Seaport/Civic Center meeting.
All of the 40-year-old museum’s galleries are currently closed and most of the staff has been dismissed. Bowne & Co. Stationers, the museum’s historic print shop, is also closed. From Thursday through Sunday, the public can board the Ambrose lightship and the barque Peking. Except for the gift shop, nothing else is open.
Instead of putting in an appearance, Sciame and Pelzer sent a letter, expressing their regrets. “Our conversations with the City about the Museum’s future are ongoing,” the letter said. “As we are still actively working to resolve various fiscal issues and determine the best strategy for a smooth transition to new leadership, a presentation by the museum would be premature. We look forward to providing a complete update at a later date. We understand and appreciate that both Community Board 1 and the community at large are anxious to know more about the future of the museum and its programs and collections. Please be assured that we are working to put the museum on a better course. Our objective is for the museum to continue to serve as a valuable cultural, historic and educational resource for New Yorkers and visitors.”
One man in the audience expressed the sentiment of many when he said, “As long as negotiations are going on with the people who let the museum decline, how can anybody expect that there’ll be a positive result?”
John Fratta, chair of the committee, said that Pelzer had called him and said that she and Sciame do want to make a presentation to the committee and to the community once they have something to present but, he said, they’re claiming that their negotiations with the City right now are preventing that. They have now failed to show up at two C.B. 1 Seaport Committee meetings that they had previously promised to attend, the first one having been in May.
Many people, both on the committee and in the audience, said that they feared that by the time the negotiations became public, irrevocable decisions would have been made that would effectively cripple the museum and its holdings.
Without an opportunity to question the museum’s management, the Seaport/Civic Center Committee devoted itself to framing a resolution to be placed in front of Community Board 1’s full board, demanding accountability and enumerating concerns.
“The linchpin to this is the Mayor’s Office,” said committee member Paul Hovitz. “The museum is treading water…and whether they get changed is all up to the Mayor’s Office and the funding is up to the Mayor’s Office and taking action. So our resolution needs to be aimed at the Mayor’s Office to create a dialogue with the community. … We’re asking [them] to let us know what’s going on and not to sell off anything else while [they’re] making this decision.”
One member of the audience, Richard Dorfman, the last master of the museum’s 1885 schooner, Pioneer, said that he was worried about what was happening at Pier 15, which neighbors the one at which the Pioneer and the tugboat W.O. Decker are docked. “If the east side of Pier 15 where Pioneer usually docks ends up being let out to somebody who then starts docking boats in there, Pioneer and the Decker will not be able to operate because it closes the space between the piers to the point where we can’t turn around,” he said.
He also mentioned that there was a Coast Guard-related issue with the museum’s three ships that could be cruising the harbor this summer, bringing in revenue, but are sitting idle. He said that in order to operate, they would have to get their Coast Guard licenses recertified, and that time was running out.
The committee finally voted in favor of a resolution stating its concern with the deterioration of the museum’s historic vessels, and asking, among other things, for a “transparent” process and for regular updates to the Community Board and the public. The resolution also asked that representatives from the City of New York, the Mayor’s Office and the museum appear before the committee in July.
Asking isn’t getting, however. “Can we call on our officials for support?” committee member Ann de Falco wondered, “because this issue is going to change this community forever.”
The committee resolved to ask.